Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day
To find our long-forgotten gold
So, I wrote a brief piece on my expectations for this movie last week, bits and pieces of which I will drop into the text, in italics, of this review occasionally. I saw An Unexpected Journey twice over the last few days and I’ll try and keep this review from being too rambly. It will contain plenty of spoilers though, so be forewarned.
I consider this movie to be a triumph. I think Peter Jackson has, once again, totally nailed it when it comes to the works of JRR Tolkien. To put it in a way that I insist is not meant in a back-handed manner, this is as good a movie as it possibly could have been, in my eyes.
Let’s start out with Bilbo Baggins, the core of the story, our title character.
Martin Freeman should do just fine as Bilbo. The guys a good actor, even if he may have been somewhat typecast over his career.
Martin Freeman plays him to a tee, making Bilbo our lovable everyman, the ordinary person swept up in a grand adventure. He struggles with it, thinks better of it, but goes anyway. In that, he is the audience surrogate, the one going on the quest that we all want to go on ourselves, to leave our boring lives behind and go out and see this universe, accepting that “home is behind and the world ahead”. Freeman gives Bilbo charm, wit, humour and a sympathetic air. From his first awkward interaction with the looming Gandalf, his fussing after the Dwarves, his wonder at the things he see’s, his fear in the goblin tunnels, his bravery at the conclusion, I think Freeman has succeeded admirably in bringing one of fantasies great characters to the screen. My personal favourite sequence of his is Bilbo’s rejection of the quest, his faux glee at seeing the Dwarves leave, and his ecstatic spring to follow them after all. Freeman brought an excellent sense of conflicted emotions to the screen there, of suddenly realising the opportunity that he was letting slip through his fingers, as his “Baggins” side failed to hold back the “Took” side. “I’m going on an adventure!” he screams as he pelts after the company of Thorin, and such a moment is somewhat invigorating and heart warming.
Freeman has been well-proven as an actor before An Unexpected Journey, but this is his best work by far. I loved seeing Bilbo terrified and alone while riddling Gollum, playing for time with the trolls or caught conflicted as to the best time to actually use a sword. Bilbo’s arc in An Unexpected Journey is one of finding his place, as the audience surrogate gets caught up in all of these thrilling adventures. In that, Jackson is following the early part of the book pretty consistently, as Bilbo goes from fretting about his handkerchief to becoming a productive member of the company (though he does so in a bit more of a bad-ass way in the movie). Bilbo’s carefree and lackadaisical life and demeanour is contrasted sharply with Thorin, and it is he that Bilbo must convince of his worthiness. Freeman takes us on that journey well, leaving us in no doubt that the “burglar” has earned his place among the Dwarves.
Ian McKellan is back as everyone’s favourites wizard. It was correctly pointed out to me that McKellan is looking significantly older than he once did, but he still does the business in a role that he has made iconic at this point. Gandalf is the catalyst for all the action, so his role is rather important in An Unexpected Journey. McKellan brings the same energy, warmth and hidden power that he did in The Lord of the Rings, from his first sarcastic conversation with Bilbo to the final confrontation with Azog. Gandalf remains one of the best fantasy characters ever written because he is more than just a stereotypical wizard, he’s a three dimensional being who gets into bad moods, has genuine emotional connections with other characters that go beyond the needs of the plot and struggles with the enormous responsibilities that he has to manage. And he can cut bad guys heads off as well. McKellan is good, but that should be no surprise to anyone.
Then there is Richard Armitage as the other main player, Thorin Oakenshield. While his general story has a good bit of Aragorn-like traits to it, Armitage is still effective as the gruff, isolated Dwarf prince seeking to retake his homeland. Thorin isn’t a great purveyor of emotion but that is a fitting representation of the character from Tolkien’s story, who was downright rude and aggressive towards other members of his company, leading eventually to the gold-obsessed madness of the final chapters. Armitage is mostly stoic and somewhat snobby, but I liked his performance. His critical acting moments will come later in the trilogy after all and for now he was able to pull off the regal bearing, the quest obsession, the Dwarven loyalty, very well.
I expect most of the characterisation for the dwarves to be relegated to extended edition material. There are 13 of them after all. That doesn’t mean it won’t be critique-worthy if it is absent from the theatrical version though.
Of the rest of the cast, well, actual time on screen is an issue. Of the other 12 dwarves, only half or so get any characterisation at all, and even that is of the one note variety. The exceptions are Balin (Ken Stott, whom I loved in Rebus) as the old mentor, who gets some nice scenes with Thorin to expand the Dwarven mythos and embiggen the leader of the company, Kili (Clondalkin’s Aidan Turner) as the young, impetuous heartthrob Dwarf, presumably given more time in order to attach emotional weight to his eventual death in the final movie, and Bofur (James Nesbitt, routinely good) who appears to be the jokester of the group but has one rather brilliant interaction with Bilbo which shows some hidden depth (His “We don’t belong anywhere…I wish you all the luck in the world” was one of the most heartfelt, emotional lines I’ve heard in recent memory).
Of the others, they are mostly distinguished by their hair more than character. Dwalin (Graham McTavish) is the strong man, Dori (Mark Hadlow) is the campy, complaining one, Bombur (Stephen Hunter) is fat (and has no lines) Ori (Adam Brown) is the youngest, gung-ho one, Fili (Dean O’Gorman) is just like his brother but with a little less to do. Obviously you can’t give every Dwarf enough time to make them all well-rounded characters, and there are two movies to go in order to make them more than just random names and faces. But it strikes me that the lack of characterisation is as much, or more, a fault of Tolkien than it is of Jackson. Most of the Dwarves in The Hobbit did not exactly get heaps of pages and dialogue to mark them out and the production team have to work off the source material as best they can. The lack of three dimensions to most of the Dwarves does not bother me that much, but I look forward to the attempts to flesh them out in the next two movies. Nori, Oin and Gloin were the real odd ones out (Bifur apparently doesn’t talk because of an axe in his head), in that they didn’t get any time at all. I’m guessing that will change.
As for the rest, nobody really lets the production down at all. I’ll talk about the supporting cast more as I look at the actual film sequence. Before that, I’d like to talk about the tone and message of the movie.
A childlike, kid-friendly, whatever you like to call it, tone. The Hobbit is a children’s story, and I would be baffled if Jackson wrote and directed it as anything but.
There is a child-friendly tone and theme to An Unexpected Journey. It is a children’s book, and criticising that can only be a result of ignorance of the actual source material. There are more jokes, more light-hearted moments, more gross-out comedy bits than you will see in The Lord of the Rings.
But it isn’t even that noticeable. Jackson darkens The Hobbit up a good bit, and the humour is of the black variety in large sections, especially the latter half of the movie. Most of the kid stuff comes and goes in the first hour and even the sort of stuff you might consider to more immature (like, say, the design and voice of the Great Goblin) comes with a great degree of seriousness and peril attached. The White Council sub-plot seems to be more of a horror-film than anything. I was actually quite surprised by how dark the story was depicted, at times, but I did not view it as a fault either.
As for the message of theme, well, Jackson has made some changes from the book. Right from the off in Tolkien’s work the issue is about gold. Reclaiming gold, getting rich, Arkenstone, gold, gold gold. There is little mention of homelands or a quest to reclaim territory. It plays a part, but the key thing is still monetary remuneration and the reclaiming of resources.
An Unexpected Journey flips that around and turns the plight of the Dwarves and the actions of Thorin into a sort of Zionist (or, maybe more appropriate today, Palestinian) quest to get back the home and place in the world that was stolen from them. Tolkien is on record as seeing the plight of Jews in Europe as an inspiration for the Dwarves, but that wasn’t too evident in the text (at least to me). It is far more so on screen.
The wealth on offer for slaying the dragon is just a happy addition: the main point is to get the Dwarves back to their Kingdom in Middle-Earth. “We don’t belong anywhere” says Bofur in the Misty Mountains, in the mournful tone of a man who would do anything to find that “where” again. This touches the heart of Bilbo, who declares that he will help the company get back the home that was taken from them, because he understands why such a thing is important and that everyone deserves one (an excellent scene).
You could be forgiven for thinking that Jackson was just trying to imbue the story with more righteousness and epicness than Tolkien did, but I credit him with more intelligence than that. The early scenes show a shadowy Thorin darkly observing his gold-obsessed grandfather and we know where the source material is going. I think the latter themes of this Hobbit trilogy will be about the power of greed on a Dwarfs mind, how it will affect Thorin and how the grandness of the quest will be diminished and ruined by such motivations. At least, I hope so, as it would provide some excellent material for latter movies. As Balin narrates how he feels Thorin is one he could “call King”, who has the ability to give the Dwarves back the land that was stolen by the dragon, Thorin says nothing, and has a look of quiet contemplation. Or, is it guilt, at the inaccuracy of the old man’s sentiment? Intriguing stuff. For now, the aim of refounding Erebor as a home for the scattered Dwarfs adds a bit of grandness to the story, and lets the audience root for the company more than they perhaps would have if gold had been the sole, clear motivation.
So, onto the movie then. I adored the Erebor parts of the prologue, showcasing he strength and might of the Dwarven kingdom, emphasising not just its wealth and immense size, but the power of its ruling dynasty, its “surety”. It is a classic “hubris” tale, but told well. Smaug’s attack is a terrifying and vicious thing, made all the more enthralling due to the lack of camera time the dragon actually gets. The destruction of Dale and the rape of Erebor is a horrific sequence, and makes Smaug the threat and protagonist that he has to be. This is the tale of a lost and scattered people, and the aim of one man to get them back to where they belonged (perhaps). The establishing of the Dwarf/Elf animosity was done subtly and effectively, and the final shot of Thorin banging away in some two-bit blacksmiths, the look of vengeance on his face, was perfect for the establishing of that character.
The rest of the prologue, with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, I could take or leave. Frodo’s inclusion was probably unnecessary, a pretty forced tie-in to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Holm is excellent as always (I liked how he was a bit grumpier towards Frodo) and the way they moved from him to Freeman was great, but that was a scene that was padded just a bit too much.
The adaptation of “An Unexpected Party” is the key exposition of the entire trilogy, and is a necessary pace-killer in order to free up time elsewhere. That being said, Jackson and company still made it is entertaining as possible. Freeman sells his incredulity and growing annoyance with the crowd of Dwarves very well, the good-natured atmosphere of the troop is infectious with their songs and boisterous activity, the humour was mixed with the serious stuff to an acceptable balance and the fireside discussion between Bilbo and Gandalf was one of An Unexpected Journey’s best scenes. This is where most of the kid stuff and more traditional humour is done, like Bofur intentionally antagonising Bilbo or the bathroom mentions. Jackson takes his time with this whole sequence, because it is the only opportunity he will get to just sit down and show off the Dwavres, elaborate on the actual quest and talk about what the company aims to do. Bag End remains a wonderful location to shoot in and these scenes just have a great sense of fun, excitement and imminent adventure to them. As stated, Bilbo’s decision to follow the company after all might be my favourite in the whole movie.
The opening trek changes into more Dwarven history, and a really unexpected detailing of an Orc/Dwarf battle before the Gates of Moria. This is the chance to show Thorin as the heroic prince and introduce the bad guy who will be our real main villain. It was a brutally effective action sequence, epic in the proper Tolkien style, tragic in the same way, a pyrrhic victory for the Dwarves that simply adds to their miserable condition as a species. Since the story had been a tad bogged down in exposition and the laying out of plot, it was important to get an action-beat in there. I really liked this one.
“Roast Mutton” gets a decent treatment, with Tom, Bert and William taking up a Three Stooges type role. This is actually one of my favourite set-pieces in the Middle-Earth bibliography, but I liked what Jackson kept and what he changed. This is Bilbo’s first chance to be useful, and he both botches and passes the test. The fight scene was entertaining enough, though the “Dwarfs in sacks” thing had a bite of unreality to it. The mucus based humour I could also have done without, but it was good to establish the strengths and weaknesses of the Bilbo character and how Thorin reacts to them. You would half expect Thorin to let the trolls tear Bilbo limb from limb – “I will not be responsible for his fate” he said to Gandalf earlier – but the Dwarf prince has that ingrained loyalty to those who have volunteered to come with him, even if he questions their use. It also gives Gandalf a more pro-active role in the story. I suppose I missed the voice-throwing, but I recognise that Bilbo needed an opportunity to be more than just another mouth to feed.
From there, after a brief stopover in the Troll cave to get the weapons, it was a chase sequence and on to Rivendell. The chase with the Wargs was thrilling enough, and it was good to see one of the Dwarves – Kili, with his botched killing of the Warg – mess up. A little bit of the Arwen/Ringwraith chase from The Fellowship of the Ring could be clearly seen, but I think they captured the terror and danger of being on foot and chased by wolves very well.
The Elvish animosity is an important plot point for later movies, and Thorin’s dislike of the immortals was well captured. Hugo Weaving is an excellent Elrond and gets to be stern, humorous and informative in his ten or so minutes here. I liked how even the level-headed Balin balked at seeking Elvish help and I’m really looking forward to the Thranduil sections of The Desolation of Smaug. Rivendell is a spectacular place for shooting a movie, an excellent blend of real-world sets and seamless CGI. Some more, ok-ish, humour here, with the vegetarian references and what not, and it is actually some of the last you’ll see.
I’m not sure what to expect with the White Council sub-plot. That’s Jackson jumping into a great unknown in my eyes, making a lot of hay out of little material.
Rivendell is where the White Council meets and the Necromancer sub-plot briefly takes centre stage. This is the filler material I suppose, but it doesn’t actually get that much screentime – maybe 10 minutes total – in An Unexpected Journey. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it, and I know Benedict Cumberbatch will do a sterling job as Sauron.
I expect I’ll roll my eyes for anything Radagast related. He strikes me as a Bombadil-type character, who belongs more in a book than in a visual format.
For now, the sub-plot allows an introduction to Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). While some have dubbed him a new Jar-Jar Binks, I thought he was tolerable enough. The bird droppings, fuzzy creatures and rabbit sledge were all a bit much, but he was a character designed for kids, done in the best traditions of The Hobbit. That being said, his child-friendly nature was directly contrasted with some of the scenes he was in, with the spiders and in the wonderfully constructed Dol Guldur set/CGI, a very creepy ruined fortress. Radagast is a very different wizard to the ones that we are used to, and he certainly didn’t detract from my viewing experience too much.
The White Council is where Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett got their chances to shine. Galadriel is a mysterious and somewhat irritating character, but Blanchett has always been able to imbue her with a certain attractiveness and grace. The oddly romantic undertones to her interactions with Gandalf were slightly jarring, but I enjoyed their back and forth nonetheless. Saruman is as authoritarian and stern as ever, and it was almost enjoyable to see Gandalf act like a busted underling when confronted by him. Lee has always been a great Saruman, and his prevaricating and denials here were good stepping stones to what I hope will be some scenes of him seeking the Ring or seeking Sauron out later in the trilogy.
Overall, I would deem the White Council sub-plot to have a very solid base from which to move on from. It’s an intriguing addition to the main plot, with some of the best actors of our time involved. This is a nice little mystery plot for Gandalf to investigate in The Desolation of Smaug, probably with Radagast’s help, and there is plenty of opportunity for showdowns with the Ringwraiths and the Necromancer/Sauron in There and Back Again. As a tie-in to The Lord of the Rings, I think it works and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.
WETA did an amazing job for the first trilogy, with the correct mixture of CGI, miniatures, the MASSIVE engine, green screen and extensive make-up. The decision to put in more CGI in this trilogy has been questioned, but I would expect it to be of a high standard.
The following parts of the movie are as good a time to talk CGI as any. Jackson makes an extended sequence out of a throwaway line in the book, as the company deal with legendary “stone giants” in the Misty Mountains. Of all the set-pieces in the movie, I was probably least impressed with this one, which seemed clunky and a step too far. There were a good number of “clinging on to a moving platform” moments in An Unexpected Journey, and this one seemed like a pretty lazy attempt to try and grab some of the tension you had in the Moria sections of The Fellowship of the Ring.
The CGI work is great in An Unexpected Journey, but it does suffer a little in comparison to the previous trilogy. Maybe it’s the oft-criticised shooting method or maybe sometimes there is just too much happening on screen, but there were flaws, universally in the fight scenes. The stone giant “fight” was one, and the subsequent adventure in “Goblin-town” was another. The Great Goblin himself was a wonderful bit of computer imagery, ably voiced by Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries, but the skittering hordes of goblins around him were far too cartoony for my liking. The very real goblins of Moria were super effective, far more than the rapidly moving CGI versions in An Unexpected Journey. The chase scene as the company evaded them and made a break for daylight was still entertaining – I for one loved the “That’ll do it” line – but crossed the bounds of acceptability with the wooden platform ride. It was a gorgeously constructed area, with the wooden platforms, goblin machinery and crude instruments but that’s all just style. The sequence needed a bit more substance I think. Actual actors for the goblins, less frantic fighting with the Dwarves perhaps. Humphries really was a delight though, he nailed that part.
Gollum/Andy Serkis is going to steal the show and I would expect “Riddles in the Dark” to be something akin to a word for word adaptation. That chapter might well be Tolkien’s finest work after all.
Of course, An Unexpected Journey’s big moment is “Riddles in the Dark”. Andy Serkis steps back into the well worn loincloth of Gollum, giving us his typically brilliant performance that he was shamefully denied an Oscar nomination for. It isn’t exactly a word-for-word adaptation of the chapter, but it was still an impressive piece of work. Serkis remains a chilling and vicious Gollum, whose every action, utterance and hiss is imminently threatening and deadly. Freeman, for his part, plays the terrified and lost Bilbo to a tee, waving his sword around like an amateur bungler. The riddle game is entertaining in a darkly humorous manner as Bilbo and Gollum try to outwit each other in the most tension-filled and amazing manner as possible.
I love Gollum as a character. He’s Tolkien’s best work. Here, I loved his glowing blue eyes, his desperation upon losing his “precious”, his despicable and treacherous nature on full display. And yet, they find the time to show the “Sméagol” side, the slinker to stinker. Gollum remains the pitiful lost gangrel creature that Gandalf will try and spare later, with the words of the wizard – “True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but to spare one” – ringing in Bilbo’s ears as he offers a silent bit of mercy, every bit as effective a message as the famous “Many that live deserve death and many that die deserve life” line from The Lord of the Rings. Jackson captures that sentiment in the visual format very well, with Bilbo’s triumphant leap over Gollum, a far more forgiving gesture than the wretch realises. Of course, Gollum is still Gollum, and Serkis delivers his vicious last line – “We hates it forever!” with his typical genius. The actual finding of the Ring lacks any swelling score or as much attention as you would expect, which is all for the good. Such a moment should be portrayed as low key as possible, considering how unimportant the object is in the larger scheme of The Hobbit. It was good to see that little glance from Gandalf though, and his intelligence in changing the subject. More to come from that avenue.
I expect Manu Bennet to disappoint. I love Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but the guy is one of the worst actors on television. If Jackson gets him to impress, I’d actually be floored.
An Unexpected Journey then moves rapidly to its conclusion as Bilbo struggles to break Thorin’s still poorly held opinion. Enter Azog and his Wargs (the over-sized wolves being a great CGI creation.) I said I would be floored if Manu Bennet gave an impressive performance, but he really doesn’t have much to do with the pale Orc almost entirely computer generated, his rasping voice more than a good enough fit.
For the record, I love what they’ve done with Azog. Similar in many ways to the Lurtz character that they invented for The Fellowship of the Ring, Azog is an Orc with a name, which gives that protagonist race someone to stick front and centre and attach more emotional weight to. Azog is big, mean, and has a grudge we can understand and accept. He’s also a very well-designed character, unique in his colour and metal arm. Speaking only Orcish, Azog just sticks out, and that’s enough to make him a memorable character as well as a credible villain. Lurtz was created and killed off pretty quickly, when you could argue he could have stuck around until Helm’s Deep in order to be a more recognisable leader of the Uruk-Hai for that clash. It seems Jackson and company have learned from that experience.
The final showdown is great, as Thorin gets his ass handed to him by his more powerful foe and the company in general seem pretty bereft of hope. Bilbo flinging himself into battle might have been a little much, especially his enthusiastic stabbing of one of the Orcs after his measured approach to Gollum earlier, but it fitted with the overall arc that the Bilbo/Thorin relationship was going on. After bigging Thorin up all movie he is completely defeated by a one-armed Orc, and Bilbo, the little hobbit that he has so derided over the course of An Unexpected Journey, is the one who has to come to his rescue.
The Eagles were another impressive visual effect, but most importantly Azog was left alive to become a recurring villain, who I imagine will remain in place all the way up to the Battle of Five Armies (his in-universe son, Bolg, has also been cast). The confrontation between Thorin and the pale Orc is yet to be concluded, and that adds a little extra something to the remaining movies. This is an excellent example of changes to a book, to suit the more visual, short-term experience of a movie, that are beneficial to the overall story.
That brings me to the ending scene. There were plenty of groans at Thorin’s fake-out speech followed by his hug for Bilbo, and I understand why. But I also understand why that scene is there. For one, it closes off Bilbo’s An Unexpected Journey arc and establishes the trust that Thorin now has in him. Great. But it is also another step at setting up the breaking that I assume will take place in the last movie, as Thorin’s greed causes his relationships to crumble. Falls are only meaningful if they are from a height, after all. A wonderful shot of the Lonely Mountain in the distance closes off the company’s tale, the perfect visual cue to entice and leave the viewer wanting more. Add in that most tantalising glimpse of Smaug awakening, and you have yourself a hooked audience.
I expect to not be bored at any point. The Lord of the Rings films were paced excellently in my opinion, and I never felt like they dragged for their long running time.
An Unexpected Journey is a uniquely paced, in that it has a large amount of exposition early on, another small amount at the mid-way point, and nearly nothing but set-pieces and action sequences in all other parts of the movie. You really appreciate how much there is in Tolkien’s writings when you see it laid out so well on screen, how much action and peril there is to be had. I happen to think that An Unexpected Journey is paced well, never spending too long on one piece of excitement to the detriment of another, placing in flashbacks and other action moments whenever the narrative is in danger of flagging. This is a well-planned, well-edited piece of film.
Where to from here? I personally have no doubts that there is enough material to fill out two more movies, especially since they made nearly three hours out of just six chapter of the book. Not counting any White Council/Necromancer stuff they’re throwing in, The Desolation of Smaug will be covering Beorn, the trek through Mirkwood, the spider fight, the Elvish fortress and the subsequent escape, the arrival in Lake-Town, the machinations and establishing of the Master (Stephen Fry) and Bard, the march on Erebor, Bilbo’s legendary conversation with Smaug and the dragon’s assault on Lake Town. At least, I would assume that is what the second will cover, as it makes the most sense from a pacing/exciting standpoint.
That should leave the third film, There and Back Again, to cover the build-up to and the Battle of the Five Armies, with the changing personality of Thorin, the gathering armies, the negotiations, the battle itself (surely an extended sequence) and finally the “Back Again” portions.
Add in the White Council’s activities and you have a realm of material to work with. Any accusations that there is not enough to justify three movies don’t have a solid grounding. I’m sure The Hobbit could have been two movies, but it can also be three.
What else is there? An Unexpected Journey has been described as very “purist”, since it leaves so much intact. Some have even gone so far as to claim that the movie feels like a page for page adaptation of the book, which is simply not true. Jackson does retain the vast majority of the books outline and events, but has the balls to chop and change where he sees fit, just as he did for The Lord of the Rings. Azog is the big one of course, but there are just a lot of other small ones, like the different approach to the three trolls, the way Bilbo accepts the position in the company, the general tone of the whole sequence in Rivendell, the Stone-Giants, etc. I would not call An Unexpected Journey a “purist” adaptation. Nearly every scene alters in small ways from its book counterpart (even “Riddles in the Dark”).
I expect Jackson to, again, keep a bare minimum of actual dialogue from the books in favour of his own interpretations and paraphrasing. This worked incredibly well in The Lord of the Rings, so why change it?
That’s especially true of the script. As in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson and his screenwriters have done a great job of preening lines from the book, altering, paraphrasing and reinvigorating dialogue. The result is wordplay that is much more accessible for a visual format, a bit more modern and crisp. The delivery is everything of course, but the script is good enough to help with that process. There isn’t any line that I would consider jarring or out of place, and as mentioned there are several scenes where the lines are fantastic, from the Thorin/Balin conversation in Bag End to Bilbo’s justification for his inclusion near the finale.
I can’t really comment too much on the frame rate issue. I saw An Unexpected Journey twice in 2D. On a large screen, there was a bit of a motion blur when a lot of activity was onscreen, but nothing too troubling. I can tell you that An Unexpected Journey is a visual feast, shot very well in my estimation with the camera having an eye for colours and detail. Places like Rivendell, the Shire and the Erebor are full of light and beauty, while Dol Guldur, the Goblin caves and Misty Mountains are places of darkness, crags and despair. The camera picks up the crucial details, and light is dealt out appropriately, even in somewhere as oppressive as Gollum’s pit. Close-up shots are used sparingly and well, with wider angles at the forefront. The Dwarves, especially at the Lonely Mountain, are characterised with straight lines and 90 degree angles, the Elves with more refined blending of stone and nature, the hobbits with farmland and greenery, the factions of evil with webs, shadows and sickly vegetation. It’s clever, it’s subtle, and it works.
I’ve mentioned a lot of the locations, but more acclaim has to be given for the sheer amount of work that the production team clearly undertook. It is the little things that can make or break a scene. Things like the candle attached to a Dwarven miners helmet, the thorny vines wrapped around Dol Guldur, the waters flowing in the White Council meeting, the distinctive braids and clothes of each Dwarf. Whether it is the reconstructed set of Bag End with its homey and welcoming feeling, or the cold stone and rotten wood of Goblin-town, An Unexpected Journey should be given immense credit for the gigantic amount of work it has put into the creation of sets, the correct application of CGI and the prop department. Middle-Earth has been created on screen for the second time in a decade, to a remarkably detailed extent. While I have some issued with the CGI of fight scenes, I cannot fault its more stationary applications.
Howard Shore is also back to give us a stirring score, easily the best I have heard in a long time. The main theme, an instrumental of the Dwarves song in Bag End, is memorable and catchy, working in different tones as a marching or battle tune. Plenty of themes are recycled from The Lord of the Rings, though usually with a few slight differences in pitch or instrument. It’s good to hear the shrill whistles for Bag End, the devious xylophone for Gollum, the choir for the Elves. The score is yet another success for Shore, and more Oscar nominations are inbound for him. In nearly every sequence, every fight, every scene, the musical accompaniment is done to absolute perfection. My lone complaint is the Ringwraith theme being applied to Thorin in his final confrontation with Azog, which didn’t fit for me, but that is one minor complaint on what is an unblemished score otherwise. Added to that is the captivating credits tune, “Song of the Lonely Mountain” by Neil Finn, which is a great way to round off the experience, as its lyrics invoke the mindset of the wronged Dwarves and their undying quest for reclamation and retribution.
I expect I’ll enjoy this film. I can’t say whether it will be better or worse than The Lord of the Rings, but I will say that comparisons between the two are both fair and unfair. Fair in so far as they are in the same universe and come from the same production team, unfair in that they are very different stories with a different tone.
Moving towards a conclusion, I want to say that I loved the book, and I loved this adaptation of the first part of it. An Unexpected Journey is a near-complete triumph in my eyes, without any major faults, bad performances or anything else that could seriously degrade it. It is probably going to be classed as my movie of the year, and I now eagerly await the second and third installments. Fully recommended, to all and sundry. In comparison to The Lord of the Rings, I would say that An Unexpected Journey matches The Fellowship of the Ring by measure of spectacle, performances and entertainment value. I wouldn’t say it is better, but I can’t bring myself to say that it is worse. It really is at a consistent level of quality, with Jackson’s Middle-Earth record undiminished.
More than anything else though, An Unexpected Journey just sticks in the mind for the many wonderful moments that it has created. I’ve mentioned some of them already, but maybe I should mention a few others of various types that stuck out for me: the children of Dale being put front and centre during the dragon’s attack, the pendulum bridge that the Dwarves find themselves on in Goblin-town, the moon-rune scene, the Orc camp on Weathertop (an excellent choice of location in order to accentuate the universe), Bofur’s teasing of Bilbo in Bag End and the flight of the Eagles.
But for me there is one that stands above all others. Very early on, Ian Holm sits at his desk in front of his newly begun book and writes out his tale, beginning his part of the story with a very special line. For Tolkien enthusiasts, this line has a little bit of magic attached to it, enough to still send shivers down the spine decades after first reading it. That line is the real start of Middle-Earth for so many people, and to hear it said out in such a context was enough to draw me into the universe and invoke feelings of sentimentality, adventure, love of fantasy and the memory of beginning a literary experience that would become one of my main obsessions.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
Roll on 2013.